The Big Read Blog (Archive)

If Drinking Helps You Write Better, Write Fast

June 22, 2008
Washington, DC

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F. Scott Fitzgerald in his Hollywood days, when alcohol withdrawal reduced him to drinking Cokes by the crate Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

For a commencement address I?m giving this weekend, I?ve been roughing out nine or so practical rules for better, more prolific writing. A tenth one just occurred to me, and it?s especially relevant to The Big Read?s writers: If drinking helps you write better, write fast.

I can almost forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald his drinking, since he fought the hardest against it. Drinking also gave Fitzgerald the opportunity to write about alcoholism as eloquently as almost anyone ever has. The scene of Nicole Diver holed up in the bathroom in Tender Is the Night, her childhood trauma sloshed up into the present by one highball too many, gives me the shakes even misremembering all these years later.

At least four Big Read writers shortened their careers by drinking: Fitzgerald, Hammett, London, and a newcomer to the list, Edgar Allan Poe. All but Hammett probably shortened their lives, too, and Hammett?s later life without writing was not a pretty one. He?d written well about drinking in a completely different way from Fitzgerald, making it uncomplicatedly glamorous in The Thin Man. Only a scold would begrudge Hammett the breezy comedy of Nick and Nora Charles? liquid, lubricious rapport. But as his body lost its ability to metabolize the stuff, he kept coming back to the same half-written serious novel over and over, each time with diminishing returns. Alcohol became a way to assuage his guilt over success ? if only by drinking away the proceeds.

London?s drinking rarely interfered with his 1,500-word-a-day quota, but it may have played hob with his choice and execution of material. Unlike Fitzgerald?s, London?s writing about dipsomania ? principally the novel John Barleycorn ? was not his best. Even though scholars have effectively ruled out biographer Irving Stone?s suicide scenario from Sailor on Horseback, it?s still hard to deny that a quarter century of drink had given his internal organs a good pickling.

Poe I know the least about, since work on his Readers Guide won?t start up in earnest around here until the most recent batch of guides is out the door. (I do have an eminently bloggable road trip coming up in a couple of weeks to prowl around Poe?s Richmond, and maybe his Baltimore.) But you don?t have to be a Poe scholar to know that he was no teetotaler, and died at 40 of murky causes possibly including ?cooping? ? the practice of keeping someone cooped up before election day, dosing him with alcohol, and then trotting him out under various identities to vote early and often. Even if unscrupulous campaigners indeed ?cooped? Poe, they did nothing to him that he hadn?t done to himself on more than one occasion.

Women on the Big Read list seem to have dodged this particular bullet, with the possible exception of Carson McCullers, who certainly had more demonstrable physical pain to kill than any of the men. Why our women writers should be spared, I can?t guess, unless it?s that women like Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston had hurdles enough in cracking the boys? literature establishment without booze to worry about. If Dorothy Parker ever follows Poe onto the list for short fiction and poetry, you can consider the omission corrected.

So -- as I plan to rain on a good graduation party or two this weekend by saying -- if drinking helps you write better, write fast. It?s not my place to go telling writers, least of all dead ones, how to live their lives. But what wouldn?t you have given for another few productive decades out of Fitzgerald, Hammett, London, or Poe?

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